Is it Beginning to Feel a Lot Like Christmas?

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When it comes to getting into the holiday spirit some people are all abuzz with merriness and Christmas joy, while others see it as just some time-off and choose to Scrooge their way through the season.  Even just hearing Christmas songs can have juxtaposing effects from one person to another. Christmas can certainly be both a time of stress and the most magic holiday of the year, but why do people often have such different feelings about it?

Polar Experiences in the Brain

The festive spirit influences some of the chemicals in your brain (dopamine and serotonin) which affect your happiness levels. Dopamine is known to be involved with reward-driven behaviour and pleasure seeking and serotonin is thought to increase our feelings of worth and belonging.

When it comes to the act of gift-giving, generosity is linked with the reward circuitry of our brain, causing the release of endorphins, often dubbed ‘the helpers high’. Bonding with loved ones also releases Oxytocin (the ‘cuddle hormone’).  So “Christmas cheer” is in some ways a bit like a cocktail of natural drugs.

On the flip side, the challenge of navigating busy shopping malls searching for ideal gifts, or stocking up on all manner of food, can trigger stress responses. This releases adrenaline and cortisol, which affect the hippocampus and can make it harder to recall things and multitask.

Stress responses are also cumulative. So a series of stressful episodes such as struggling to find a parking space, finding out the gift you need has sold out, then getting home to realize you forget to buy wrapping paper – all add up over time.

Nailing Down Christmas Spirit

It’s not the typical domain of neuroscience, but a team of Danish researchers set out to see if these contrasting feelings show up as differences in brain activity. Published in the science journal BMJ, their stated objective was “To detect and localise the Christmas spirit in the human brain.” To do so they tested people from around Copenhagen in two groups: one who had strong positive feelings about Christmas traditions, and another group who had weak or negative associations. The first group were ethnic Danes, steeped in holiday tradition, and the second group was mostly people who had immigrated to Denmark. All of the subjects’ brain activity were analyzed while they viewed a mix of Christmas-themed and neutral images.

A Christmas Zone in the Brain?

By using fMRI, the researchers were able to localize increased activity in specific brain regions in the subjects that responded strongly to Christmas images. They found increased activation in several motor cortex areas and the parietal lobule.

These regions are known to be involved in functions related to self-transcendence, spirituality, somatic senses, and the recognition of facial emotion. Together these play a role in enabling people to experience a connection or sense of harmony with the world around us.

While this couldn’t really be called a ‘Christmas network’ (these regions are involved in a many cognitive processes), it did reveal that experiencing a Christmas vibe is likely about connecting beyond what we normally do.  The researchers pointed out that this may be similar for other types of festivals

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